Historians Asking Why — Or Not Why But How

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by Neil Godfrey

historiansFallaciesWhy did Christianity begin and why did it become the primary religion of the West? Why did Islamic terrorism become a major concern of the West? . . . . In senior high school I was taught that the real interest of historians is to ask why things happened. Memorizing dates and facts missed the point. Some biblical scholars today stress the importance of asking the “why” questions about Christian origins.

But ever since I came across historian Fischer’s Historian’s Fallacies I’ve not been so sure. To some extent I can understand what is meant by the appeal to dig into finding out “why”, but at the same time, and in the interest of clarity, I also find myself reflecting on this passage in Historian’s Fallacies:

In my opinion — and I may be a minority of one — that favorite adverb of historians should be consigned to the semantical rubbish heap. A “why” question tends to become a metaphysical question. It is also an imprecise question, for the adverb “why” is slippery and difficult to define. Sometimes it seeks a cause, sometimes a motive, sometimes a reason, sometimes a description, sometimes a process, sometimes a purpose, sometimes a justification. A “why” question lacks direction and clarity; it dissipates a historian’s energies and interests. “Why did the Civil War happen?” “Why was Lincoln shot?” A working historian receives no clear signals from these woolly interrogatories as to which way to proceed, how to begin, what kinds of evidence will answer the problem, and indeed what kind of problem is raised. There are many more practicable adverbs-who, when, where, what, how-which are more specific and more satisfactory. Questions of this sort can be resolved empirically, and from them a skilled historian can construct a project with much greater sophistication, relevance, accuracy, precision, and utility, instead of wasting his time with metaphysical dilemmas raised by his profound “why” questions, which have often turned out to be about as deep as the River Platte. (p. 14)

Alas, Fischer was not hopeful that his minority view would ripple out to move the entire pond:

It is improbable that this will happen, among historians, in the foreseeable future. “Why” questions are rooted in the literature and institutionalized in the graduate schools. . . .

I do wonder, however, if many modern historians have indeed seen the light — but I am basing this on only a small handful of recent historical works I’ve happened to read. I do see the concern for “why questions” to be at the forefront of inquiry among a handful of biblical scholars investigating Christian origins, however.



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9 thoughts on “Historians Asking Why — Or Not Why But How”

  1. I think he may have been thinking of Skinnerian “Black box” behaviorism, and positivism. The theory was that we can’t really read minds or motives, or metaphysics. So just describe visible behavior, or acts. Turning all inquiry into Physics.

    I use this at times, somewhat – when people get really, really subjective. As they often, even characteristically do, in religion. Though I still believe thoughts, cognition, are somewhat accessible. As is behavior motivated by material gain.

  2. Are you saying that biblical historians who ask the “why” questions are doing so in an unfocused way (preceding from an ambiguous starting point – “why”), and so are attaining results that are more “speculative” than results proceeding from the more concrete starting points (what, when, where, etc)?

    Provocative, to say the least.

  3. After discussing the question perhaps more often raised by a past generation of historians than now (e.g. Was a certain historical event such as the Civil War “inevitable”?….) Fischer illustrates the sorts of questions he finds more meaningful to historians:

    But there are many historical problems of primary importance to all inquirers, whatever their opinions may be, which are clearly not metaphysical. “How many people voted in the election of 1840?” “How did the price of cotton change in the 1850s?” “What did the Halfway Covenant mean to the men who made it?” “Was Franklin Roosevelt more interventionist than a majority of the American people in 1940, or less so?” Nonmetaphysical questions can be exceedingly complex and sophisticated. “How and when did habits of authority develop and decline in English and American politics?” “How did the personality patterns of Negro slaves change during the period of their enslavement?”

    These are urgent questions, and they are empirical questions, which can be put to the test. The reader will note that none of them are “why” questions. . .

    1. You can see this applying to biblical studies:

      eg. (1) “What” was Matthew doing in his infancy narrative? Recapitulating the story of Moses. (2) “Why” was Matthew doing this? To present Jesus as the new and greater Moses.

      It would seem that practically all of Jesus studies take the form of (2).

  4. More or less along similar lines. I recently got embroiled in a thread on McGrath’s blog. Eventually the question came up as to the genre of the Gospels, and McGrath as much as admitted it wasn’t something that was even considered. You analyze the text, apparently, and glean from it what you can, without really questioning WHAT the text is. If you don’t know what, it seems you could never answer the why question credibly in the first place, the whole thing is circular.

    1. McGrath published (would it be churlish to imitate his own willingness to say “self-published”?) Burial of Jesus for Christian faithful back in 2008 and that settles the matter for him: “historians” don’t look at the text to find the history of Jesus — they dig beneath it. Those literary tiles are not meant to be studied in their own right (God forbid — they obviously depict a mythical story for faith!) — they are there to be prised apart with a pick so the scholar can “see” what lies beneath. I think the model below is his (discussed at Gospels As Historical Sources: How Literary Criticism Changes Everything):


      His ignorance is not unique in his field. It led him to dismiss Carrier’s arguments without for a moment indicating the slightest awareness of a host of scholarly studies among his peers on the way literary analysis undermines so many areas where historicity of some sort is taken as a given.

    1. Recall that “there” is an adverb of place. Hence, “where” is an interrogative adverb. On the other hand the interrogative “who” is answered by a noun, so it’s an interrogative pronoun.

      You’re right to be suspicious, since the part of speech of an interrogative depends upon the answer it solicits. The big question that Fischer seeks to avoid — why? — is, of course, an interrogative adverb. However, “who,” “what,” and “which” are all pronouns.

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